Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fifteen Fictional Characters

A friend recently posted a note on Facebook with a challenge:

"Don't take too long to think about it. List fifteen fictional characters (television, films, plays, books) who've influenced you and that will always stick with you."

I smiled, reading her list, as I nodded to old acquaintances and wondered about those unfamiliar to me.

Presumably, if you're reading this blog, you've chosen writing as a career, or at least an obsessive pursuit. While making lists like this has become almost cliched in our information-saturated digital world, the exercise has a deeper value for writers.

Recalling the characters who influenced your decision, your calling to become a writer can help you discover the qualities within those characters that made them so appealing. Characterization is the creation of memorable characters, and melds with word choice and sentence structure to form the elusive quality of writing known as "voice". Like art students studying the masters, writers can learn the craft by examining the characters who left the pages and took up residence in their imaginations and memories.

My own list could stretch far past the required fifteen, but for brevity's sake, I'll limit myself to three examples.

1) Frodo Baggins J.R. Tolkien's famous Hobbit.

Frodo traveled into the darkest parts of his world, carrying the token that could destroy all he loved and held dear, with one purpose in mind: destroy the Ring.

What impresses me about Frodo is not his courage or his tenacity, though those qualities are part of his character, but his simple, practical understanding of himself and his place within the Fellowship. He never thought himself a great Hero, rushing off on his white horse to single-handedly slay the dragon, or in this case, the evil wizard bent on taking over the world. In fact, he would laugh at the very thought.

He assessed his strengths, faced his weaknesses squarely, and was content to allow others to fulfill their roles while he did his best to carry his own burden. He was loyal, brave, and had a deep understanding of what was at stake. His practicality and humility gave him depth and made him a memorable, lovable character. He was... is, a true Hero.

2) Leonardo Hamato, Ninja Turtle.

Anyone growing up in the '80's through the early 2000's might remember the corny, goofy, pizza-guzzling Green Machine known as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While the iconic '80's Turtles were typical of cartoon characters at that time, joking, talking to the audience and battling comical villains, the 2003 incarnations were older, wiser, and far more aware of the very real dangers lurking in their fictional version of New York City.

They still battled evil. Donatello still created incredible inventions from junk-yard scraps, but in the 2k3 version (as it's known among fans), characters suffered injury, and in one infamous alternate-universe episode, the beloved heroes died in a final battle against their nemesis, giving their lives in order to save a world which had rejected them.

Leonardo, in particular, stands out to me for his loyalty, his strong sense of honor, and his single-mindedness. While the Turtles actually die in the alternate reality of "Same As It Never Was", in another episode Leonardo makes a decision that, save for a last-instant miraculous rescue, would have resulted in the deaths of himself and the entire family. In the aftermath, Leonardo faces his own decision with guilt, frustration and a depth of rage that is rarely examined in children's programming. Because Leonardo's reactions to trauma are real, he is believable. The devil, as always, is in the details, and so is the characterization.

3) The Tao "TJ" Jones, from the book Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher.

Chris Crutcher remains one of my favorite authors for teens. He tackles issues of social justice head-on with the unapologetic, clear-eyed voices of his teenage characters. What makes his creations so unique is their passion. Each of his characters has something they hold dear, whether it is social justice, as in the case of TJ Jones, or loyalty to a friend like Eric "Mobe" Calhoun from his book Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes.

TJ's self-admitted pigheaded refusal to back down from a fight, combined with his calm acceptance of his tragic past and his constant pursuit of justice, not for himself, but for those around him who are weaker or less able to defend themselves, make him a character the reader cannot ignore. He is stubborn to a fault, angry and often impulsive. Some of his testosterone-fueled teenage follies may seem outrageous to more sensitive readers, but above all, he is memorable. Love him or hate him, you will never forget TJ Jones.

TJ is a great character because he's passionate. Never, dear writer, back down from what your character believes in for fear of offending delicate readers. A character without passion, whether hero or villain, is a character without motivation, without fire, without the necessary fuel to drive the plot forward to it's full, heart-pounding potential. Without TJ's passion for justice and family, the book's conclusion would have been gutted of its intensity and power.

When I look back at the characters who have stayed with me over the years, I see three recurring traits:

1) Each character was involved in a larger story. Something was at stake, whether it was the fate of the world, the safety of family, or justice for the victims of small-town bullies. If the character had made a different choice, in each case, something precious would have been lost. Each character was needed, and each responded to the need, answered the Call.

2) Each character answered a call that forced them to press beyond their limits. Each lost something precious and had to respond to that loss, either by continuing with the Hero's Journey or by giving up. All good stories involve seemingly-insurmountable challenges. All good stories include the loss of something the character cares about, and all good stories result in the growth of the character through the journey.

3) Finally, each of these characters had unique traits that made them the only one who could answer the Call. Each had particular passions. For Frodo, carrying the Ring meant defending his beloved Shire, even if it cost him his life. For Leonardo, his honor bound him to protect the people of Earth, sacrificing everything he loved. TJ Jones risked everything in the defense of the helpless, and in the end had to learn to live with enormous loss.

A Treasure worth sacrificing for, a Journey of challenges, failures and triumphs, and a Passion. Those are the three ingredients to creating characters your readers will never forget.


"For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day."

2 Timothy 1:12 KJV